Leading, and Winning, from Behind

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On July 25, 1969, President Richard Nixon outlined what would alternatively be dubbed the Guam or Nixon Doctrine. "The United States," Nixon announced during a stopover in the Western Pacific territory, would "furnish military and economic assistance when requested in accordance with our treaty commitments. But we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense."

It was a policy designed to reduce the likelihood that the U.S. would, in Nixon's words, be "dragged into conflicts such as the one that we have in Vietnam."

Times change. Far from being "dragged," most of the post-Nixon military conflicts America has found itself in have been initiated by the United States (Afghanistan being among the exceptions). So perhaps it's no surprise that Nixon's Guam Doctrine has been resurrected and refashioned by President Obama under the far less inspiring title: "leading from behind."

Offered as a defense of the U.S. role in the war against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, "leading from behind," like the Nixon Doctrine, promises to shift the burden of regional military operations to the countries most immediately at risk. The U.S. would offer assistance, but wouldn't be on the front lines. In an era of growing debt and economic unease, it was a strategy to fit austere times.

Ever since the phrase leaked from the lips of an unnamed Obama administration official to the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza, it has served as a useful hook for opponents of his foreign policy, conjuring up an image of a cowardly America in retreat from the world. Yet two recent events offer, if not a vindication, certainly a validation of the president's restrained approach.

The first is the French war in Mali. After the surprising advance of Islamist forces in the south of the country, French special forces and fighter jets intervened to help the Malian government push back the rebels. While events are still fluid, the French have begun to register some success with almost no U.S. assistance. That France would be so aggressive in taking the fight to al-Qaeda was something of a surprise to everyone.

The second event was the announcement that after over a decade of cuts, Japan's defense budget would finally see an increase in 2013. There's no surprise why: A rising China is increasingly at odds with Japan over a series of disputed islands in the East China Sea. While the U.S. remains treaty-bound to defend Japan in the event of hostilities, it's clear the new government of Shinzo Abe isn't taking any chances.

These two events, while unrelated, tell us something important about the international system -- something that the president's critics often miss. We're constantly told that absent American leadership, the global system would simply collapse. "If we start doing less, who's going to do more?" wondered Senator Marco Rubio, in a major foreign policy address last year.

In this, Rubio was echoing a broad swath of Washington's foreign policy establishment, which has convinced itself that global order simply cannot function without the steady hand of the American superpower at the wheel. Unable to defend themselves, America's weak and decadent allies would haplessly drift into the orbit of rival powers like Russia or China. Terrorist groups would flourish unimpeded. Pirates would ravage global shipping lanes.

But exactly the opposite has happened.

Rather than wilt helplessly into the claws of the Chinese dragon, the Japanese are bulking up their defensive punch. Indeed, almost all of the states currently locking horns with China over territorial disputes have increased their defense outlays with a specific eye toward countering China's naval power. What they have not done is become meek and neutered satellites of Beijing. Even Burma, long considered a dependent of China, is showing signs of independence. In Mali, the French acted in defense of their interests -- they did not sit idly by waiting for Uncle Sam to rescue them (a fact many commentators who typically sneer at the French were obliged to acknowledge).

What is happening, in other words, is that global "policing" duties (and their associated costs) typically assumed by the U.S. are being picked up by allies. Yes, they are being picked up grudgingly -- with self-serving complaints about abandoned U.S. leadership whispered to journalists as if to goad a prideful Washington back into action. Yes, chronically underfunded allied militaries may stumble out of the gate. But the fact remains that when and if the U.S. steps back from some of its policing role -- when it "leads from behind" -- other powers will step into the breach.

None of this should come as a surprise; it's how incentives work. When the U.S. "leads from front" (i.e. does the fighting, dying and paying for regional security operations) other states will naturally seek a subordinate role. The only way to incentivize states to do more for their own defense is not to lecture or beg, but to make it clear that they are on their own.

This is, of course, the very outcome that America has for decades labored to avoid. The idea of strong, regional powers acting independently from Washington's directive was threatening during the Cold War, since "independence" could tilt a state toward the Soviet bloc. In the post Cold War world, Washington clung to the strategy under the theory that the more states were dependent on the U.S. government (and taxpayer) for their protection, the safer the world would be. In reality, it enabled prosperous allies like Japan and Europe to fund domestic programs while the U.S. picked up the defense tab.

Today, the Obama administration is reversing course, but only tentatively. After a decade of torrid growth, defense spending is leveling off. The U.S. is consolidating bases in Europe and drawing down in Afghanistan. But in the Middle East and Asia, in particular, President Obama remains committed to a forward-leaning military presence. There are still some regional security challenges, like Iran's nuclear program, where the administration, in that hallowed American tradition, insists on leading from the front.

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